The earth moves whenever the Food Marketing Institute Midwinter Executive Conference goes into session. It's a cheap metaphor, but one that was a big topic of conversation at the conference -- to the point that many attendees joked that maybe the world would be a better place if the meeting were suspended. After all, look at the momentous and wholly unpredictable events that have paralleled the meeting lately: Three years ago, the Persian Gulf War erupted just as the conference got under way in Boca Raton, Fla. Last year, torrential rains all but washed away the California desert as the meeting went into session in Indian Wells, Calif., and this year an earthquake shattered Los Angeles just as the meeting got under way, again in Florida. It seems petty to complain about the unprecedented cold that froze much of the nation at the same time, but that happened too.
So perhaps it's fitting that several of the talks at last week's meeting had to do with the impossibility of predicting what is about to happen.
The prescient Roger Stangeland of Vons, FMI's chairman, mentioned in his talk to a morning session -- a session assembled just as word of the earthquake was beginning to spread among attendees -- that it's important to separate what can be controlled from what is inevitable in both the industry and in the world.
He recommended tuning "the ability to distinguish the change that is inevitable from that which we can control. Both free trade and greater efficiency are inevitable. To take a position on either is like taking a stance on the weather." Or on earthquakes, I suppose.
Shortly thereafter, Robert M. Gates, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1993, spoke from the same podium about how optimism sparked by the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communism has been buffeted by "the reality of an enduring new world disorder."
He went on the describe how disorder is radiating from the ill-managed states spun off from the Soviet Union, from the flowering of previously suppressed ethnic and nationalist conflicts, from the accelerating spread of weapons of mass destruction and from other sources.
He also alluded to the beating the Third World is taking because of earthquakes and other disasters. And Los Angeles and the food trade there.
It was interesting to note that it was this same Robert Gates who surfaced a day after his talk at the FMI meeting as a minor figure in the odd and unpredictable political drama that played out while the conference was in session -- the drama centering on Bobby Ray Inman's withdrawal as Defense Secretary designee. Gates was mentioned in news accounts about Inman as one who benefited from Inman's counsel during his own confirmation hearings in 1990 and as one who defended Inman to a degree by urging that Inman's explanations be taken at face value. Finally, the earthquake-morning session at the conference heard from yet another speaker who talked a little about the unpredictability of events, namely Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"What's disturbing about a time like ours is that so much of what we expected didn't occur and so much of what we do expect seems always over the horizon," she said. "I didn't expect the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism, the end of the Cold War." Nor earthquakes, flood or desert wars, I'm sure. As for the rest of us who try to grapple with issues a bit more finite, such as industry strategies, it's probably best to be content to follow Roger Stangeland's outlook and endeavor to manage the forces of change that are so clearly arrayed.
It's also good to have a fallback strategy or two in place to roll out when the unpredictable event, such as earthquake or flood, strikes.